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Through our work on this project, People with Disability Australia will identify the key ways that institutions can make children with disability vulnerable to sexual abuse. ‘Institution’ means ‘organisation.’ For this project, ‘institution’ can include mainstream organisations like schools, churches, sporting groups, hospitals and Scouts. It also includes disability-focussed organisations such as respite care, day centres, sheltered workshops/Australian Disability Enterprises, group homes, special schools, children’s homes and so on.

We do not think that the vulnerability of children with disability to sexual abuse are the result of disability. We think that these vulnerabilities are the result of how institutions treat children with disability.

We think that it is only by addressing how institutions make children with disability vulnerable to sexual abuse that we can make a future that is safe for all children.

What we find out will be communicated to the Royal Commission to inform their reports and recommendations.

For more information about our systemic work in this area, please contact Jess Cadwallader, Advocacy Project Manager, Violence Prevention, at jessc [@] pwd [dot] org [dot] au

Key issues

Children with disability are at heightened risk of sexual abuse within institutional settings. This is not because of their impairments, as some suggest, but because they are made vulnerable by those institutions. Perpetrators frequently select their victims based on those who will not or cannot report, or who will not be believed if they do. In this sense, both the failures to safeguard children and the responses of institutions must be understood as implicated in the high rates of sexual abuse of children with disability.

In addition, children with disability frequently encounter institutions which are quite different to those used by other children. They are frequently excluded from, or have only limited access to, mainstream institutions such as sporting institutions and schools. As such, their experiences of institutions and institutional responses to sexual abuse are quite different to the rest of the population and must be explored within that context.

We plan to explore the following issues:

  • Segregation
  • Access to Justice
  • Restrictive Practices
  • Sex and Relationships Education
  • The NDIS Quality and Safeguards framework


As suggested above, many children with disability encounter institutions which are quite different to and separate from mainstream institutions. This includes institutions such as residential institutions, respite care services, disability services, hospitals, boarding houses, day care centres, mental health facilities, disability justice facilities and juvenile justice facilities

Because these institutions are specialist institutions, they, and the children using these services, are usually quite removed from (segregated from) the rest of society. This exacerbates what some academics have identified as a 'social apartheid,' an isolation which has numerous effects:

  • It can create an isolated setting within which behaviours which would be unacceptable by mainstream community standards are normalised and/or excused by staff, clients and others.
  • It can limit the number and variety of people that children with disability come into contact with, decreasing their options for reporting.
  • It can make children with disability overreliant on staff in relation to reporting, as staff may have conflicting commitments, and/or may not provide support to ensure that children can report to police.

The NDIS quality and safeguards framework

The National Disability Insurance Scheme requires a robust quality and safeguards framework, which is currently being developed. This is a key piece of infrastructure that must be addressed in order to prevent the sexual abuse of children with disability.

Many of the specialist disability institutions that children with disability encounter are included under Disability Services Act (in NSW, but other equivalent Acts in other States and Territories), in contrast with non-specialist or mainstream institutions such as schools. However, with the move to the NDIS, many of these Acts, and the more and less adequate protections they ensure for children with disability, will no longer apply to disability services. Thus the NDIS quality and safeguards framework will be the primary way that specialist organisations are subject to oversight.

Access to Justice

In the majority of Australian jurisdictions, justice and policing services are not accessible for children with disability. There are a number of factors here. In some cases, police are not equipped to take the statement of a child with disability, especially if they use alternative or facilitated communication. In other cases, police make decisions about whether to take statements based on other factors, including the availability of alternative services (especially in the case of accommodation resources), or whether they think that a child will constitute a 'reliable witness'. This severely and falsely limits reporting, and in turn prosecution and conviction.

At the point of prosecution, there are other impediments. The various state- and territory-based evidence laws, which may preclude, for example, witnesses who use interpreters, or alternative communication devices, or require facilitated communication. Further, many of the difficulties faced by vulnerable or marginalised people in being treated as reliable witnesses in jury rooms may come into play. These difficulties often deny justice to children with disability. However, it can also undermine state- and territory-based working with children checks, where these are problematically limited to convictions or even simply reports. This in turn undermines the ability of service providers to safeguard children.

Restrictive Practices

Children with disability who experience sexual abuse frequently develop 'challenging behaviours,' especially if they are non-verbal. Institutional responses to challenging behaviours frequently make use of restrictive practices, rather than investigating potential trauma or abuse. In addition, restrictive practices exacerbate vulnerability, either through the restraint of children (physical or chemical), and/or by further segregating individual children in seclusion. Restrictive practices also frequently re-traumatise the child, leaving them with compounded trauma which can be very difficult to treat, even if the issue is ever recognised to be trauma.

In addition, the frequent use of restrictive practices can affect the internal cultures of a given institutional workplace. This can mean that behaviours that would be understood as inappropriate or unacceptable outside the institution become normalised within it. Often this raises the vulnerability of children with disability to sexual abuse, because it can limit staff and client capacity to recognise abusive relationships.

Sex and Relationships Education

Children with disability do not always have a good understanding of what constitutes appropriate relationships. Many, especially those with intellectual disability, do not receive sex and relationships education which is accessible to them. In addition, because many children with disability are socially and/or institutionally segregated, they do not receive what researchers have called the 'ignored curriculum' – that is, learning from friends, families, communities and ordinary interactions what constitutes appropriate relationships. This leaves many children and adults with disability with an inaccurate understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse.

Often, this is because children with disability are treated as if they did not have, and would never have, sexual lives. This leaves children with disability underequipped to recognise, report, or respond to, sexual abuse. It also leaves them underequipped for engaging in appropriate relationships as they grow up, and can lead to risky behaviours. For those who may have been sexually abused as children, or had sexual abuse normalised in a setting they have lived in, this may lead to perpetration.